Many of us social bravehearts work in pretty tough countries, countries where it is easy to get frustrated by the magnitude of the problems they face…so I want to share an example of a country with a lot of seemingly insurmountable tragedies (Guatemala) and two leaders (among many) who have continued to trudge forward, despite what many others cast aside as “a hopeless state.”
36 years of civil war is a hard act to follow, but President Álvaro Colom and First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom may be Guatemala’s best attempt yet. Elected in 2008 under the National Unity of Hope party platform, Colom promised an aggressive focus on the country’s staggering extreme poverty rates – one of the highest in Latin America – and firm financial reform. And without missing a beat, his government did just that.
That same year, the Council for Social Cohesion was founded and a number of far-reaching, well-funded programs were put into place:
1. Mi Familia Progresa/ My Family Progresses – an monetary effort to bring health care and education to families in need, via government subsidies
2. Escuelas Abiertas/Open Schools – 200+ schools are opened on the weekends to offer educational activities and a safe environment. This action is aimed to prevent the juvenile delinquency that often arises from Guatemala’s 52% young person unemployment rate.
3. Bolsa Solidarias/ Food Bags – periodic food relief given to poor families
4. Programa de Alfabetización/ Literacy Program – an aim to combat illiteracy at all levels of the population
5. Comedores Solidarias/ Shared Dining Rooms – shelters where a meal and drink are given.
For how a couple be so ambitious in a country that faces statistics like 77% under 5 infant mortality rates and one of the highest crime rates in the world, one only has to look at their history. Before Colom became President of Guatemala, he acted as the Executive Director of the National Fund for Peace (Fonapaz) which assisted in the re-housing of tens of thousands of refugees at the end of the civil conflict in 1996. This organization also helped generate 75 new business and create thousands of jobs. “Humanitarian” has almost always been a part of his mission.
His wife and First Lady, Sandra Torres, started the National Coordination of Women where she attracted over 30,000 Guatemalan women (indigenous and non alike) in the fight for recognizing their rights. She supported the Initiative of Law Against Feminicide and the Initiative of Law for Responsible Parenting, both approved in 2008. As First Lady, she has taken on the primary leadership role in all of the programs mentioned above under the Council of Social Cohesion.
Guatemala has waited a long time for leadership like this. The security woes and environmental damage still continue, corruption persists, and it’s a long way before poverty is a whisper, but Colom and Torres have set clear priorities that offer clear progress and for that, they must be commended.